05.20.2016

What We're Reading

It's OK. Science is hard for scientists too. Popular misconceptions about the nature of science play right into the hands of climate change and evolution deniers. No one is served by stories suggesting that science advances in a series of heroic eureka moments, or that science can be “done” with no further investigation necessary. This week, an article about how students benefit from learning how science really works, and another decrying the layoff of hundreds of climate scientists. Also, a segment from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight that highlights how news coverage can reinforce misconceptions about how science works. Meanwhile, science continues to deepen our understanding of the history of both humans and our planet, and the news continues to provide abundant examples of human-caused problems that urgently require attention.

  • Scientific Studies, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, May 8, 2016 — John Oliver masterfully demonstrates how media coverage of scientific studies that fails to put results in context—How big was the study? Who paid for it? Was it done in mice, fruit flies, or humans?—can give the impression that science is a random headline generator, not to be taken seriously.
  • How Teens Benefit From Reading About the Struggles of Scientists, KQED MindShift, May 10, 2016  — Stories about science often emphasize the heroic tale of how Some Famous Scientist made Some Important Discovery by dint of genius and hard work. But the real story of scientific discovery involves a lot of failures, by lots of people, before someone is able to pull together the kernels of success and announce a discovery. Turns out, when researchers present students with stories that emphasize the scientists’ struggles, students learn more and feel more connected to the scientists. Students who themselves struggle with science learn that such struggles don’t mean you’re bad at science, or not a "science person."
  • Australia to Lay Off Leading Scientist on Sea Levels, The New York Times, May 17, 2016 — A preeminent Australian researcher specializing in sea level rise and one-third of his colleagues at Australia's National Science Agency have been laid off.  The chief executive of the agency said of the layoffs that because climate change has already been proven, they now need to focus on finding solutions.  Over 3,000 researchers from more than 60 countries signed a petition describing the job losses as devastating to climate science.
  • Eske Willerslev Is Rewriting History With DNA, The New York Times, May 17, 2016 — Carl Zimmer profiles Eske Willerslev, who "uses ancient DNA to reconstruct the past 50,000 years of human history. The findings have enriched our understanding of prehistory, shedding light on human development with evidence that can’t be found in pottery shards or studies of living cultures."
  • Scientists find 4.5 Billion Year Old Rocks on Baffin Island, cantech letter, May 17,2016 (submitted by reader Steve Bowden) — Turns out planet Earth isn't six thousand years old after all: An interesting article about rocks that date back to the earliest days of our planet. There is an isotope of tungsten present that shows that Baffin Island has not been reabsorbed into the mantel since it first formed. 
  • The Plan to Avert Our Post-Antibiotic Apocalypse, The Atlantic, May 19, 2016 — Ed Yong explains a new report estimating that by 2050, drug-resistant infections will kill one person every three seconds, unless the world’s governments take drastic steps now. Why might that happen? We overprescribe antibiotics, and…evolution.
  • Mercury Rising: India Records Highest Temperature Ever, CNN, May 20, 2016 — India has been suffering record-breaking heat this May, with hundreds dead. Several towns in the state of Rajasthan have been experiencing highs over 50C, or 122F. Temperatures this hot do not just endanger human lives acutely, they also threaten the food supply by affecting the ability of vital food plants to set fruit and grain.

Photo by LaurMG. - Cropped from "File:Frustrated man at a desk.jpg"., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20367001